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R.I.P. - The Blank Slate?,
This review is from: The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently - and Why (Hardcover)
Not long ago, the idea that babies are born "mentally malleable" was thought to have been laid to rest. Richard Nisbett has granted the idea a conditional resurrection with this book. Instead of culture being but a gloss over what evolution granted our cognitive skills, it is the foundation on which thinking rests. In a significant study of East-West cultural differences, he finds a deep cleavage between them. Easterners, he argues, show a marked propensity for an holistic outlook - seeing environments before details and fitting individuals within a group. Westerners, with an interest in the more specific, elevate the individual and focus on details over context. Although these differences are exemplified by Confucius' teachings in the East and Aristotle in the West, they are by no means the founders of the attitudes. Indeed, according to Nisbett, the roots of this dichotomy reach deeply into the past.
Western notions, he argues, derive from a Greek ideal of "personal agency". The individual might live in city or farm, but his actions and voice were unique. They also originated the investigation of nature's workings - a process that would culminate in today's usurpation of the environment. Individuals contested their ideas publicly, a process reflected in such diverse environments as politics and science. Ideas are "testable" for validity and utility.
In the East, particularly in Confucian China, the underlying theme is "harmony". For the individual, that's reflected in submergence within the group, whether family or corporation. Disputes aren't resolved by debate, but by mediation, often by a third party. Where Americans, Nesbitt says, use confrontation, even litigation, to resolve issues, the East finds a Middle Way. He finds graphic expression of this in the fact that there are forty times more lawyers per capita in the United States than in Japan!
Nesbitt bases his contentions on several years of study of both cultural areas. He incorporates the work of other researchers [although no cognitive scientists are cited] who have investigated both cultures. The studies have consistently demonstrated how Eastern and Western cultures view themselves, other cultures and education. The last is of some significance as many students from Eastern societies have been educated in Western nations. What impact, he asks, is this type of exchange likely to have on cultural diversity.
Nesbitt's study concludes with the two modern expressions of the future of cultural diversity. Almost no other modern works on the future of humanity could be as diametrically opposed as Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis and Huntington's "clash of civilisations". Francis Fukuyama's proposal that "democratic capitalism" will expand without limit, bringing the world under the hegemony of the "free market", and by default, making humanity "american" in thought and practice, has been challenged by many. The greatest of these challengers is Samuel Huntington, who contends that the peoples not immediately benefitting from the "free market's" blessings will resist its encroachments, even by force when all else fails. Nesbitt, a consummate optimist, thinks that the increasing mobility of the world's populace will turn this dialectic into a synthesis of merged outlooks.
How likely this Middle Way of Nesbitt's is to be achieved is moot. Recent activities in the Near East by Western powers suggest this book needs wider exposure. How deeply these traits are ingrained in the cognitive makeup of two major human populations is also moot. His own research, which prompts his own Middle Way, is shown by the reactions of Easterners and Westerners spending time in each other's environment - especially in school. But no more than the first steps have been taken. It requires both societies to recognise the differences before the mediation can be accomplished. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]